Saturday, May 6, 2017

Institutionalized: EQAO, TOEFL and the Neoliberal Classroom

By A.M.

One of the more distressing features of the modern education system is its open endorsement of the priorities and procedures of industrial capitalism. The segregation according to age, ability and subject starts at four years old, and continues until at least age eighteen.

We learn many things in school - mostly negative, with some positive thrown in. We learn that knowledge is something to be memorized, tested and stored for future retrieval. This ideology has been baked into our society, such that it seems as natural as the air we breathe. The ideology of school finds its logical conclusion in the practice of standardized testing. In Ontario, this takes the form of various tests administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). I recently had the chance to take part in a scoring session for the EQAO's Grade 10 Literacy Test, and it was exactly as soul-crushing as you'd expect.

Our job was as follows. We took stacks of papers that had been completed by students throughout the province, and scored them at our tables. I use the term 'scoring' as it accurately reflects what we were doing. Many (though not enough) of my fellow teachers made the 'mistake' of marking their papers as they would in a classroom setting - that is, actually caring about each student's ideas, technical ability and overall engagement with the material. We were told - in no uncertain terms - not to do this.

Instead, we were to read each paper as quickly as possible, and assign it two numerical scores: one for topic development, and the other for technical proficiency (spelling, grammar, syntax). We were seated facing forward, in rows of about ten people each. We were permitted to speak to each other, but only about the task at hand. The feeling of the entire affair was frankly more like prison than a gathering of educators.

As a student teacher, imagine walking into a room with three hundred other educators. Will we (as I expected) discuss the very rich topic at hand? With a response question like “Should schools have dress codes?”, the conversations would have been emotionally charged, challenging and informative. What might we have accomplished, what deeper understandings might we have come to, were this the case? We might have informed public policy, or at least helped create a brighter future for young educators-in-waiting, like myself – to say nothing of the students we’re supposed to be serving!

Instead, the reality was strikingly similar to that encountered by the students we were assessing: sit down, shut up, and do your work. The reality of EQAO is not unlike a factory floor. We were expected each morning at 8:30 sharp, when we were walked through the expectations for the day. This meant pointing out some sort of meaningless issue with the previous day's activities (i.e. a paper that had been scored incorrectly in some way). We were then given productivity goals for that day. For perspective, I scored 1206 papers in seven days. This should give you some indication of the quality of assessment at the EQAO.

The mind-numbing nature of the scoring, while truly upsetting, was not the worst part of this experience. The worst part is how quickly and eagerly the indoctrination was gobbled up by my fellow educators. The vast majority of the complaints I heard (and there were many) were directed neither at the EQAO, nor standardized testing more generally. They were, instead, directed at students. There was frequent laughter and snide comments from teachers sharing students ‘dumb’ responses with one another. This has only confirmed my impression of teachers as a deeply conservative group. Most teachers frankly have less than zero interest in challenging the power structures of public education. Instead, they are in fact actively – often consciously - engaged in reinforcing those structures.

In one particularly galling instance, a student’s poor syntax was referred to as ‘something an immigrant would write.’ This is horrifically offensive, of course, but it would also be unfair to blame the individual teacher and leave it at that. What kind of response do you expect from a teacher schooled, trained and now working in a culture that despises deviation from accepted norms? What kind of responses are we really looking for when we are pushing children through the wringer of standardized education? Even if he had wanted to, this teacher would be functionally incapable of engaging critically with the student’s response, or the reasons why that student is writing far below grade level. Or, even more foundationally, to question the need for standardized testing and formal education at all!

Throughout my time at EQAO, I was reminded of another, even less pleasant experience I had in the education system. While applying for grad school in the fall of 2015, I learned that I would have to prove my English proficiency to any institution outside Canada. I was told to register for a ‘Test of English as a Foreign Language’ (TOEFL) session. As I was then hoping to attend school in either Amsterdam or New Orleans, I dropped a mind-boggling $230 and drove out to Etobicoke early one Friday morning to take the test. I was truly shocked by what I encountered.

I was required to bring my ID, which seemed fair enough for a session booked over the Internet. Upon arrival, the TOEFL team studied my driver’s license for close to a minute. They finally allowed me to enter the testing room, where each student was seated in a cubicle, cut off from audio and visual contact with anyone else. Cameras were strewn throughout the room. When we wanted to use the bathroom, we had to ask permission, whereupon we were patted down both before leaving, and re-entering, the test area. I don’t have to spell out how frighteningly similar this is to life in prison (a comparably dehumanizing experience for all involved). We were to complete each section within a short time period, with no extra time given. This wasn’t a problem for me personally, as I am a native English speaker. I witnessed the frustration of many of my fellow ‘test subjects’ during breaks, when it became clear that they were falling hopelessly behind. I should note here that the complaints I heard from this group were much more encouraging, politically speaking. No one was slamming the workers at the centre, who were just doing a job that they themselves clearly thought was nonsense. One older woman taking the test remarked that she was being made to feel stupid. Why was she being forced to take a test in her second language without any outside help? How is that fair? I had no response other than to say that I agreed, and that the whole thing was a massive waste of time and resources.

These are but two of the many agencies/institutions within our sprawling education system. I’m well aware that neither EQAO nor TOEFL is responsible for the corporatizing of education. They are symptoms of a much deeper and intractable problem: the schooling of society. When we become reliant on institutions and agencies for our education (no matter how well-intentioned), we’ve already lost. Whatever the original intent of the school system, it’s clear that it does not serve the interests of students. We now have a situation where entire academic and personal futures rest on meaningless assessments by uncaring educators sitting in warehouses, marking hundreds of papers every day.

Frankly, this education system has long since passed its ‘best-before’ date, and it’s time to move on to something that might actually help human beings.

"Alienation, in the traditional scheme, was a direct consequence of work's becoming wage-labor which deprived man of the opportunity to create and be recreated. Now young people are pre-alienated by schools that isolate them while they pretend to be both producers and consumers of their own knowledge, which is conceived of as a commodity put on the market in school. School makes alienation preparatory to life, thus depriving education of reality and work of creativity. School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition. And school directly or indirectly employs a major portion of the population. School either keeps people for life or makes sure that they will fit into some institution." - Ivan Illich, "Deschooling Society

A.M. is a writer in Toronto. 

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